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Michael Long is a speechwriter, author, educator, and award-winning screenwriter and playwright.

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Can They Feel It?
Three ways to up the emotion.

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Here are three tips for building emotion.

Open with a bang. In the first minute, audiences decide whether to pay much attention to you, and what they decide is up to you. As you begin, give them something to react to, not something that requires serious thinking:

Describe a precarious situation they can identify with.

Reveal something surprising about yourself, something they did not expect to hear, something that takes fortitude to say.

Express a counter-intuitive truth you intend to expand upon.

Show them a prop, especially something that doesn’t seem to fit the topic.

Roll music or video.

Perform some physical demonstration.

Give them something to do with or ask of a seatmate.

Tell a joke.

If your principal is adventurous, have them sing a line or two – doing that created one of Barack Obama’s most memorable speech moments – or play an instrument, or do a magic trick. Because before the audience does you the favor of thinking about your ideas, you have to intrigue them enough to pay attention at all.


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Let the facts create the emotion. We’ve all come home to our significant other to find them moping around or being short. Just by seeing their behavior, we know how they feel – and how they want us to feel. Instead of just telling us, they made us figure it out and thus engaged us more effectively. We can create emotion in an audience this way, too.

Apply the dramatist’s advice of show, don’t tell. Early in my creative writing course, I pace the front of the classroom with my head down, shuffling my feet. I ask the students how I must be feeling. They say “sad,” of course, and then I ask, “How did you know?” I tell them that to engage their readers, don’t tell them Jane was sad. Describe what Jane does when she’s sad and let the reader figure it out. Readers engage with what I call "little puzzles." So do speech audiences.

Break expectations. A typical speech is delivered from behind a podium passively and without significant digression. Why not step out from behind the podium? Why not directly address a member of the audience (tell them beforehand!) and have an exchange with them? Why not wear a microphone so you can roam the stage, or even walk out into the audience?

Such little, presentation-based changes have profound emotional value: they show that the speaker has confidence in themselves, confidence in the material, confidence in his or her knowledge of the material. That’s important. Audiences are persuaded not just because it makes sense to believe but also because it feels right. Much of that feeling must flow from a display of the speaker’s confidence.


Surprise the audience. Jar their expectations.
Let facts themselves create emotion.
And start with something different.

* * *

Facts matter, but they stick better with emotional engagement. Laying down a “base coat” of feeling makes a listener more inclined to do the heavy lifting of fact-based analysis when the time comes.


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